Monday, January 16, 2017

Cities, part I

Superheroes and cities go together like bread and butter, even if you can do superheroes in a rural setting, or in space. As Steve Kenson has pointed out, superheroes are intrinsically urban: They have cities to belong to or to protect. And, in fact, you should the Iconic location rules in Stark City for an excellent description of how to create places for specific game purposes in your campaign.

My purpose is a little different. The guys I play with are masters of verisimilitude and the unintended (by me) consequence. They are totally the guys who would say, "So, where is the Super Soldier formula kept and how can I get some? Because we need more vigilantes," or, "I think the roots of criminal behaviour are in poverty and despair, so I'm going to devote half an hour a day to turning dirt into gold, so I can raise the general income level. I'll need a secret way to trickle the gold into the population, though..."

So basically, in any post labelled Cities, I'll be talking about what I've discovered about cities so you can create more realistic cities. I make no guarantee about the accuracy of what I've will generally be okay, but it might fall into the lacunae that the self-taught often have, and if I succumb to believing some nonsense that is out of date or shown to be wrong, let me know. Some wrong ideas still make useful campaign fodder.

I'm talking about cities, here. I'm not talking about hideouts, supersecret government locales, or mystic headquarters. Those have different forces acting on them.

So Where Is It?

Your city has to be close to some kind of transportation, which makes sense: a city is a conglomeration of people who make their living by trading rather than by producing resources, such as farming or mining. If your city pre-dates the beginning of the twentieth century, then it's near water. (For drinking purposes, all cities end up being near water, because people need to drink...though I can think of workarounds. But I mean water that can be used as transportation to other places.) Near for pre-twentieth century means "within about 150 km of the ocean."

For cities that became cities after the start of the twentieth century, different forms of transportation are available. Horses, cars, and trucks are practicable at the beginning of the century, and air transport becomes possible by the middle of the century.  Cities can be farther away, so long as they have access to a transportation hub or hubs.

Most big cities in North America are by rivers or bodies of water. There was a thriving transportation industry that carried materials up and down the Mississippi, and other waterways, too. (Heck, there were steamships that went up and down the river near my Canadian city.)

The later the city was founded, the further away the suburbs or towns, because people could travel farther, faster. When feet where the primary means of transportation, towns tended to be about fifteen kilometers apart...ten miles...because five miles was about as far as you could walk in the morning, do your shopping, and then walk home before dark. Obviously, as the city swallowed up small towns, it got bigger, but those towns are often neighbourhoods in the resulting city...a way for you to inject a bit of local colour into the area where the heroes live. ("This area? This was Mechaniton, where the only mechanic for forty miles lived!")

Where The Rich Folk Live (Generally Speaking)

There's a wealthy area, and it's on an edge of the city towards the prevailing winds, whatever they are. (Usually in North America, they're west blowing east, but local geography can change that. Living on the water is usually more expensive...but not always!) Wealthy people generally don't want to live downwind of the factories and such; poor people don't have that kind of choice. They live where they have to.

Of course, as the city gets older and expands more, something might be built on the other side of the wealthy it becomes less desirable, and there's a slow migration of the wealthy to a new area.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Your small-town supers setting, doncha know

For a small group, you can certainly consider a small-town setting. (Insert Brent Butt's comedy routine about the hooker in the small town.) They can go into the city sometimes and get into conflicts there, but most of it would be local. There are a couple of things to think about.

Why are your heroes grouped there? There are possibilities. Perhaps the government decided to put the paranaturally-abled students out in the country where they could damage less in case of an accident. Maybe they're all part of the same family...Mom and Dad Super moved out there to raise their children. (Heh...I just thought of a low-rent Xavier School, which is a big farmhouse where the students have to help with chores.) Maybe they've been chased out of the city. Heck, maybe they're all refugees from a particular conflict and the local church has raised money to settle them there.

What are they going to do? We presume they're going to fight someone; it's a superhero game. But who (or whom)? Well, there might be the conflicts with the locals...but that won't sustain an entire campaign, though it might make an interesting arc through it. Off the top of my head:

  • Someone's after the retired superhero in town, and he can't defend himself.
  • There's a government base--a kind of Area 51--nearby that can produce your freak-of-the-week.
  • It's a super-student school, and the opposite group generates conflict.
  • Bad guys have come to town to hide, and your players find out.
  • The place was heavily affected by the gene bomb/meteors/alien invasion a bunch of years ago.
Consider it as a place to use. They can always move to the city afterward.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Questions for your superhero setting

The easiest thing to do in a superhero setting is make it the real world, with superheroes. That's really what the comics do, because the readers have to identify with the setting, and the more obvious changes you ring, the harder it is for them to do. But as a gamemaster, you probably want to think about your setting a bit more. Whether this stuff is exposed to the players or not (and it probably shouldn't be, unless it's relevant to the adventure), it'll affect how you do things.

I'm talking about things after you determine morality and how four-colour and gritty your campaign is, when you're doing the world-building.

These things are in no particular order. I've numbered them just so that I can easily refer to them.

  1. How common are supers? You have to have enough for your campaign, unless it's usually against Team, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Do they concentrate in this area, like New York is apparently where 99% of Marvel supers go?
  2. Where's your home base? East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, Great Lakes, elsewhere in North America, not in North America? Existing city, existing supplement (such as San Angelo or Freedom City), or made up city?
  3. Who deals with the remaining evil lairs after the supervillains are cleared out? Is there a government organization, probably part of US Army or National Guard, that's dedicated to "sanitizing" abandoned evil lairs? Are there thrill-seekers (a la Base Raiders) who want to get there first, or portions of Dark Web that sell scavenged high scientist tech?
  4. It's always nice to have an undertown, like Seattle or Chicago or Stark City, whether it's a place for criminals, mutants, evil lairs, or just Bad Things. 
  5. When did superheroes appear or go public? Around WWII? The Roswell crash? At Kent State? Did a superhero greet Apollo 11 on the moon? That'll help determine the existing changes to history, if any.  
  6. How do superheroes deal with cellphones and built-in GPS devices? Is there a company that sells hardened cellphones for supers, with a discount if you post on Twitter-Facebook-Instagram-etc. (The company also sells location info of supers to government.)
  7. Are there super fabrics for costumes? How do supers get their costumes. Idea: there are super fabrics for costumes, with multiple manufacturers, though some skimp on it and there are knockoffs, so some costumes get torn easily. There are tailors/manufacturers for super suits, but that tends to fall into government/pricey or underworld manufacturers. There are non-hero reasons to buy the fabric, so you're not going to be pegged as a super just because you buy a few yards. (It's tough & fire-retardant, for starters, though it has terrible insulation properties. (Which is why you can be athletic as heck without overheating.))
  8. Does Atlantis/Thule/Latveria/Bialya exist, and does it have a seat on the UN council? Idea: Atlantis is trying to get a seat at the UN but countries won't recognize it because doing so would mean that Atlantis has a say on deep sea oil drilling.
  9. Do animals ever manifest powers? Is there a Legion of Super Pets, or do you have to be a hominid (ape or human) to get powers?
  10. Is there a "hero gadget underground" where profs assign hero-gadget tasks to (engineering) students and if there are heroes who take them on, a commensal relationship develops. Or a subculture of "supermakers" who are trying to duplicate or improve various pieces of hero or villain equipment.
  11. Traditionally, superheroes don't change the iconography much (people in our world still have to be able to read and enjoy the comics), but are there a couple of characters who are, like, revered (whether living or dead), like Superman or Captain America are in DC & Marvel? They don't have to be in the game themselves, just names as currency. 
  12. Do heroes trademark their looks? Or is it automatic? How are they affected by changing costumes? Is there a law that trademarks superhero identities for them? Or is it like that clown archive, where each clown's makeup is painted on an egg--the identity can still be misused by others, but those in the know can see who owns what identity?
  13. Are supers common enough that there's a place to go if you suddenly discover you have superpowers? I'm not speaking of Shady Dan's Den of Powers, which will show up no matter what, but rather a real training thing? Or do you wait to be apprenticed by an existing superhero, or make your own way, or get kidnapped by the Men in Black? Or all of them?  
  14. Have superheroes been around long enough that there are retirement homes for them? Who takes care of a guy who (say) has Alzheimer's but can still level the block? Who visits? What secret information gets spilled in such a place?
Others will no doubt show up. 

Have you ever run a campaign, John?

System: ICONS

Lots of them. But in this particular case, I'll assume you mean ICONS. Back in the days of the original release, I ran a numbers of the adventures, and one of the players was kind enough to write them up. Here are some links, because I'm not going to take his words away from him.

Behold the adventures of the Halifax superheroes, possibly the worst-funded public superhero team in Canada. ("If they were really good, they'd be fighting crime in Toronto. Or New York.")

I also did a series at the Hope Preparatory School (a setting by Melior Via), which I placed in Toronto.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Point buy in ICONS


ICONS isn't really a point-buy game--it's a random-roll character creation game. But it does include a point-buy option that isn't terrifically well explained. But point-buy is useful for some online games, at least until the GM is comfortable with how Determination Points balance things.

So I thought I'd give a shot at explaining point-buy. This is based on information I've picked up from Mr. Kenson's posts on the ICONS Yahoo group and G+ and elsewhere. The caveat is that I might be wrong, and I hope someone more knowledgeable will correct me. I'll try to keep this post up to date as I'm corrected.

If you don't have a copy of the rules, you might want to pick up a free copy of the hero character creation quicksheet, from DriveThru or RPGNow.

The Basics

Everything costs one point per rank. Prowess 7 is 7 points. Specialty Law (Master: +3) is 3 points. The Power Danger Sense 1 is 1 point. With the exception of Extras and Limits, to total the point cost of a character, you add up all the rank values.

Bob Average

So Bob Average costs 18 points. Bob Specialist (the same guy with one specialty) would be 19 points.
Here's Bob Guard, who has some points in powers as devices:
Bob Guard
Intellect3Pistol (Shooting)3
Awareness3Nightstick (Strike)4

He's a whopping 26 points: 18 for the attributes, 1 for the specialty, and 7 for the powers.

The catch is Extras and Limits. They add a lot of versatility, but they muck up the accounting some.


An Extra is something you add on to a power. For the most part, Extras are the same rank as the power they're based on. An Extra on a power that's rank 1 is also Rank 1. An Extra on a power that's rank 9 is also rank 9. For many of the extras, rank doesn't matter, because the benefit of the extra is binary: it affects phased items or doesn't, for example. Still, in point-buy, that means that it costs the same as the original power. Leaping 9 + Extra: Defensive is 9+9=18 points.

Here's Bob Extra:

Bob Extra
Intellect3Shotgun (Shooting) Extra: Burst5
Awareness3Nightstick (Strike)4

Without the extra, he'd be 28 points (18 attributes, 1 specialty, 9 powers). With the extra, he's 33 points. Yup. With extras, your character can get expensive, fast. But you can't really do Burst other than as an extra. (Okay, you can stunt the extra if you only need it occasionally.)

For convenience in calculating, I generally put the rank of the extra beside it, so it becomes Extra: Burst 5.

The Extra: Effect adds a power, and the rank is still the same as the original power. Force Field 4 + Extra: Telekinesis 4 is 4+4=8 points. Now, in point buy, there isn't so much reason to use a power as an can just say you have the power at whatever level you can afford....unless the power also has a limit.


A Limit is a limitation on a power. When you apply a limitation to a power, you have a choice. The limitation has one of these three effects:
  • Raises the rank of the power by +2
  • Reduces the cost of the power for figuring Determination
  • Cancels the cost of an extra on that power

We'll concentrate on that third one for now. (When you're submitting your character to your GM, please let them know which use of a limitation you're going for. Otherwise, they might do the math differently.)


Why would you do this? Given that you have pretty much total control in a point-buy situation, why would you make any power an extra?

To cancel out the cost with a limitation.

Back to the Topic

A couple of things to note:
  • You can put limitations on an Extra: Effect
  • If the power has no extra, then you can't cancel out the cost of the extra.

That is, it's okay to do this:
Extra: Force Field Limit: Temporary 

The cost for the kit and caboodle? 5 points, because the Limitation cancels the cost of the extra.
Clear it with your GM, but I think this way of writing makes it clear that the Force Field has the Temporary limitation, not the TK power.

To be clear: If you wrote the power this way, the limitation would still cancel the cost of the extra:
Telekinesis Limit: Temporary5
Extra: Force Field 

The rules aren't clear, but I'd interpret that as meaning that the Temporary limitation applies to the Telekinesis and pretty much every Extra on it, including the Force Field. (Feel free to correct me, and if you get agreement otherwise from your GM, that trumps everything.)

More Examples

Telepathy 4
Cost: 4

Telepathy Extra: Rangeless 44
Cost: 8

Telepathy Extra: Rangeless 44
Telekinesis Limit: Close Range4
Cost: 12 (8+4, and limit is given to making the Determination cost 0 on Telekinesis)

Telepathy Extra: Rangeless 44
Extra: Telekinesis Limit: Close Range4
Cost: 8 (because the Limit cancels out the cost of the Telekinesis extra)

I don't think that's a complete discussion, but it includes a number of areas that seem to cause difficulty. I'll expand as necessary.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Cornucopia Powers

Sometimes you are looking at a character with something in mind, and you think, "Hey, five powers (six if you got lucky with your origin) aren't enough!"

Yes, there is stunting, and frankly, all you need to stunt is an Advantge and there are several ways to get those. But there are a couple of powers that are meant to duplicate any other power that's reasonable for your fictional description.

Now, I'm not talking about Cosmic Power. Cosmic Power was a pretty wide-open power when ICONS was first released, but with the Assembled Edition, it's mostly just a slutty power description that will take any extra. "I have Cosmic Power...and I'll take Aquatic as an extra, and Animal Control." No, once upon a time, Cosmic Power was truly an opportunity for every power, but not now.

No, the two powers that really are meant for duplicating powers are Gadgets and Magic. (A slight change to Magic has made it encompass the "old" Cosmic Power.)

One of the things I liked about Mike Lafferty's Recluse write-up was the use of Gadgets to cover the web-shooters: Swinging was Gadgets 3, Binding was Gadgets 7 (I'm making up the ranks), and it allowed the web-shooters to do all the things they do in the comics.

Obviously, if you spend a Determination point, you don't need the attribute test. (It's not clear, but I suspect an Advantage works here as well as a Determination point. The rules only call out Determination points, though.)

The biggest disadvantage to both of them (I think--I don't have the rulebook handy) is that you don't pick a power that they emulate by default. (You do for Cosmic Power, for instance.)

Both require a page of preparation, but you can buy that off with an Extra: No Preparation.

Gadgets requires an Intellect roll against the rank of the device you have or are building. Swinging 2 is an Intellect test against 2. Binding 4 is an Intellect test against 4, and so on. Obviously, if you're naked on an island with nothing but fish skeletons and sand, the GM might deny you the use of your Gadgets ability.

Magic is a little more versatile and a touch more complex. When you get the power, you define the attribute that you roll against (Will is common, but it might be Awareness; Flex Mentallo might use Strength) and you get to define a specialty that will help, such as Occult, Power Ring Usage, or Muscle Mastery. However, Magic also has the Performance limit: you have to speak the spell, gesture with your ring, or pose magnificently. (You can buy that off with another extra, if you want.)

Magic offers Mastery, which Gadgets does not (officially): Mastery essentially means buying the power as an Extra, and then you don't have to worry about preparation or performance for that Mastery. Still, it's expensive from a point view, and it starts to look like Cosmic Power is a reasonable bet, then.

So if you're thinking that the problem with ICONS is not enough powers, try Gadgets or Magic.

  • Gadgets: Intellect roll, page of preparation.
  • Magic: A [choose one] attribute roll and a Specialty, page of preparation, and performance.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016


In one of his blog posts (, Ron Edwards talks about have fighting is tiring, and how he doesn't see that in comic books after 1980. (Read the post. I found it interesting.)

Champions used to emulate that by having powers and Strength cost END, 1 END per 5 points of power or strength used. A normal person (hah!) had enough endurance to punch ten times, more when you counted recovery in. As a Champions player, I used to find ways to work around END cost, even if I couldn't buy it to zero, I had lots of things on charges or whatever.

Edwards' main argument seems to be that END is realistic--fighting is fatiguing, which I remember from Days of Yore, when I practiced karate. But while comic RPGs don't need to deal with realism (Hello? Flying guys and telekinetic women?), they do need to deal with verisimilitude.

Comics as they are today mostly ignore endurance. ICONS ignores endurance.


If you would find the game more interesting if there were an Endurance kind of stat that made you tired in a linear way, rather than as an arbitrary "He gets away because you're exhausted, have a Determination Point" way--maybe you're playing an all martial artist game--here are some ideas. (This scenario is interesting to me only in an abstract way, so I can't guarantee that the ideas are good.)

Tiring by Default

All powers (including Strength) have the limitation "Tiring." Using a power costs two stamina. If you can fly with chi powers and punch, that's four stamina right there,

It's not linear, but it has the advantage of being right within the rules as written. It also means that fights are going to be short, unless everyone's going to be saving their determination to refresh stamina (or buying Healing or Stamina, if you allow that).

New Stat

The easiest way is to go for a new derived stat. ICONS has two, Stamina and Determination. We add Endurance to that, and make it five times your Stamina. So Dim Mak has a strength of 5 and a will of 6, he has a Stamina of 11 and an Endurance of 55. But the cost for a power has to switch. Instead, the cost is the point cost for that ability. So if Dim Mak is just punching (strength 5), that's 5 points of endurance. But if he's clearing out the room of mooks (strength with the Burst extra, to get all of them), that's 10 I points of endurance: 5 of strength, 5 of Burst. (Limitations would take away, but the minimum cost for using a power is 1.)

The extra "Zero End" might exist in this version of the system.

New Limitation

This combines them, and lets you roll dice, as well. It is not as linear as the new stat--I haven't worked out the math yet--but can be considerably more punishing than the "Tiring" limitation. You put a limitation--call it "Uncontrollably Tiring"--on the power. Whenever you use the power, roll 2D6 versus the number of ranks of power. If you roll over the number of ranks, you're fine. If you roll under, you lose that many ranks of Stamina, double that many ranks on an 11 or 12.

It behooves the GM not to allow this limitation for powers that have only 1-5 ranks, or to change it to 1d6 in that case.

Idea of the month

If you don't like world-building, set a superhero vigilante level game in the same place as the Grand Theft Auto games. That place looks lawless.

I haven't played, only overheard, because my son got GTA V for Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Antaeus League

The heroes are opposed by a mysterious organization that seeks to nullify and capture the powers of each super-powered individual, and do with them...what? Create a super-powered army? Grant powers to their own members? Infiltrate governments?

Or save the world?

(Idea brought on by late night watching of The Librarians; name from The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers.)

Not that the agents don't have powers: they do. The powers are oddly restricted, often earth-style powers: great strength, invulnerability, turning people to stone, growth, and more, but nothing that involves leaving contact with the ground: no flight, gliding, or teleport. They can stretch, but not throw.

Some very rare members know a little bit of magic (so they say) but that's always kept a low level, and those agents can be recognized by the chains hanging from their boots.

With luck, they'll stay in the background enough that the heroes won't have an opportunity to learn that the members of the League have no powers when not in contact with the earth, either through a chain or by standing directly on it. Asphalt is okay, but up in a building is not. (That means that their attacks always happen in open areas: on the field of a stadium, in a parking lot, a park, a nature reserve.

The heroes first come across them when they steal the powers of a fellow hero, rendering him normal, even though he didn't have the kind of powers you'd think of as removable: tech skills, perhaps, or something inborn. The next time, they might help, depowering one of their foes during a climactic battle that the heroes would have otherwise lost. The powers are imprisoned in a small urn with Egyptian hieroglyphics, most like a canopic jar.

Then the Antaeus League (still unnamed) comes after the heroes. (If you have a player who is going to be absent for a while, depower that character, but otherwise don't; it's not fun to be the unpowered hero in a superhero game.) There are close calls. Maybe the heroes manage to capture one of the League.

Why are they doing this? To save the world.

They have been responsible for thousands of years for keeping magic in check. Superpowers are nothing more than magic given a particular expression. If there is a clearly-defined start to the superpower age, someone got into their hideout and broke a thousand of the magic jars. (If there isn't, then the Antaeus League has its own enemies, who sometimes manage to free some of the magic.)

They are certain that if all the magic were freed, it wouldn't be superheroes any more; it would be a full-on Tolkienesque post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

And the Antaeus League member pleads with them to give up their powers.

Now, in your campaign, they might be deluded, or they might be right.

So try throwing that into your next superhero campaign.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Brief Personal Note

Just quickly, and to practice saying it:

So about four weeks ago, they removed chunks of my stomach, small intestine, pancreas, and gall bladder in an operation called the Whipple procedure. Examination of the removed tissue showed cancer in the common bile duct. Today I went to see another oncologist--not the surgeon--to see what was next.

Well, what's next might or might not be chemo. Yes, the surgeon thinks he got it all, and the single clinical study shows that for people with my indicators chemo might not affect the five year survival rate. Except it wasn't described to me that clearly, so I need to see how they did the math, and what the sample size was (because I'm annoyingly fact-based). I was told simply that the lifespan of chemo patients was longer, but applying chemo to my particular situation had no statistical significance. So I want to compare the average lifespans of chemo patients with my indicators to the average lifespans of non-chemo patients with my indicators. That seems straightforward enough and will guide my decision.

So that's why I've been absent or flakey this last little while.